Jim Geraghty ages a spruce growing as thick as a man along the Trail of Time - not by counting its rings, but by reading the etching on a flat, round rock that sits beneath it.
"Ice Limit 1916," the rock says, putting the tree's age at about 60 or 70.
The spruce can't be much older because the glacier had to retreat before a sapling could take root, said Geraghty, who remembers visiting the glacier as a boy growing up in Juneau.
The glacier was much bigger then, he said. People would park their Model Ts all the way back in what now is dark, dense forest. Part of the lot is still there, hidden among devil's club in the lesser-visited area of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
The tourists would walk along the trail and take pictures of the view at Cobble Shelter, Geraghty said, a view that now is just a tangle of needles and limbs.
Geraghty has a personal photo collection of the time - from about 1910 to 1948 - when the glacier first became a tourist attraction and before the Mendenhall River meandered north.
The U.S. Forest Service, which runs the visitor center, plans to use Geraghty's pictures to help highlight the history though an interpretive project to be paid for with federal economic stimulus money.
In addition to the Trail of Time, improvements will be made to Powerline, Photo Point and Nugget Falls trails, and include a new observation platform and elevated walkways in busier parts of the visitor center.
The aim is to make the center more interesting by interpreting its history, more accessible with gently sloped trails and better bridges, and safer by separating tourists from wildlife. The agency is taking scoping comments on the project this week, as a precursor to an environmental analysis.
The Forest Service has been interested in doing the improvements for at least 15 years but never had funding, said project leader Ed Grossman, the recreation program manager for the Juneau Ranger District. It is being fast-tracked now under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Work should be done in less than a year, Grossman said.
The Forest Service would not provide an estimated project cost since contracts will be put out to bid soon, Assistant Public Affairs Officer Julie Speegle said in an e-mail.
President Obama signed the Recovery Act in February in response to the economic crisis, to create jobs and spur economic activity. The act made $275 billion available for federal contracts, grants and loans.
In July, the Forest Service announced a $5 million appropriation to the three major visitor centers in the region - Juneau, Ketchikan and Portage.
The agency received $17 million for trails and building projects in Alaska.
Grossman said the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center project would be bid as several small jobs - trail building, rock work, bridge replacement - so that local companies could participate. Bid winners would be expected to hire and buy materials locally, he said.
More space, please
As the Mendenhall Glacier retreats, black bears are becoming nearly as much of an attraction at the visitor center as the ice. About a dozen sows have been rearing cubs there in the summer, feeding on salmon spawning in streams that meander through the property.
The bears traverse under walkways, cross over roads and hang out in areas visited by thousands of tourists each day. The situation can be nerve-wracking for center employees trying to keep the peace, Grossman said.
A new elevated walkway installed as part of the Recovery Act project will keep people farther than petting distance from bears, Grossman said.
"We're trying to manipulate their behavior and make it a lot less stressful for the staff," Grossman said.
See-through fencing around the perimeter of the busiest part of the center - where thousands of tourists mingle on a daily basis during the height of the season - will force the bears to take a different route to the stream.
Work on the center begins this spring and completion is expected by September, Grossman said.
• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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